In this excerpt from her book 55 Corrective Exercises for Horses, trainer Jec Ballou shows how creative use of our environment can provide all we need to counter a horse’s problematic posture or movement patterns.
Skilled riding is often all it takes to improve a horse’s athleticism, performance, and overall well-being. But just as often, even good dressage-based training programs fail to fully root out the habits and patterns that prevent many horses from reaching optimal movement and correctness of their gaits. Anything from a poorly fitting saddle to inconsistent exercise schedules to an injury or stress, or past postural imbalances can create compromises. These quickly become deeper impediments to a horse’s movement mechanics that persist even with good, regular riding schedules.
The body’s way of taking care of itself during physical imbalances is to put up defenses. These defenses take the form of muscular spasms, adhesions, tightened muscles, restricted joint motions, and signals to and from the central nervous system to move differently.
Curing these defenses is not as simple as giving the horse a period of rest, though that can seem like a sensible solution. Adhesions and spasms, for instance, do not go away on their own after aggravating sources have been eliminated. They require outside manipulation as well as correct signals from the body to clear out. Putting a horse out in the field for a few months with the hope that everything will clear up rarely fixes the underlying problems.
Therapies like chiropractic care and massage are generally successful in releasing areas of immobility so the horse is able to move optimally. They free up areas of tension and compromised mobility that the body will not release by itself. However, they only set the stage; they do not by themselves create healthy movement. For that, the horse must be taken through exercises that habituate correct new patterns. Physical motions are governed by an underlying wiring that will still store faulty signals until these signals are reprogrammed.
This is where corrective exercises like the one I’ll share here, Serpentine Across the Ditch, come in. When a horse has developed more strength in—or favors use of—one front limb, it causes him to travel crookedly. This comes about by one of his shoulder blades developing tighter soft-tissue connection with his torso. Because of this, he will commonly be seen or felt leaning to one side or “bulging” one direction with his shoulders or rib cage when in motion.
A helpful technique to partially remedy this is to stimulate his shoulder-girdle muscles with varying effort and coordination. Constantly changing slopes and surfaces help prevent him from traveling habitually with the forelimbs.
1. Find a ditch or canal that slopes downward approximately 5–10 feet, and then rises up the other side. Be sure the banks of this ditch are stable enough to ride on and not crumbly or dangerous.
2. Begin by standing in the swale, with the horse’s body parallel to the banks or sides.
3. Now proceed to ride a shallow serpentine that keeps crossing the ditch.
4. With each loop of your serpentine, move just two or three steps up the side of the bank and then return back down. The loops should be tight and swift.
5. Remember to change your horse’s poll flexion and bend for each loop, the same way you would in the arena. Be sure to not let him “fall” down the slopes with quicker strides. His rhythm should remain measured throughout.